The lake near my home where herons nest every year is still frozen, but the birds are back. This morning I saw about a dozen of their haphazardly constructed nests in a grove of poplars on a little sandy island. If you’re curious what herons feed on when they don’t have access to open water: well, let’s just say they’re opportunists. Last year at this time I saw a heron standing motionless in knee-high grass, near a pile of brush. Suddenly it jabbed its beak downward, and emerged with a cottontail. As I watched, it shook the rabbit several times, flipped it in the air, caught it again, tilted its head back and swallowed the animal whole.
Yes, we all know that winters in the Rocky Mountains are cold and long. But as we sit comfortably in our warm living rooms with Netflix and a glass of Cabernet, it’s easy to assume that the ungulates and predators and birds and other creatures that inhabit this region are equally cozy, or, at least, that they have evolved strategies for surviving the winter.
For the various species as a whole, that may be true, but when the temperature plummets the way it has here in recent days, many individual creatures succumb. It’s not a complicated equation. To survive the cold, they need to take in more calories than they expend. If they do not, then they ultimately provide calories for other creatures.
On the last day of Montana’s upland season I encountered neither swans a-swimming nor geese a-laying. And, with the thermometer hovering at 15 degrees while 20 mile per hour winds whipped down from the Rocky Mountain Front, there were definitely no maids a-milking (unless they were sequestered in a well-heated barn somewhere.) Edo did, however, late in the day, find a single rooster for me in a big field of snow-covered barley. I had time to cock both hammers of my Thomas Horsley bar-in-wood, but only needed one. As we began the long walk back to the car, a merlin flew into my field of view. Strangely, while Edo and I trudged through frozen stubble, across frozen irrigation ditches and past feral Russian olives, the little falcon kept us company, swooping several times so low over my head that I swear I could have caught it with a butterfly net. I don’t think it’s anthropomorphism to suggest that it might have been simply playing. If not that, then your guess is as good as mine.
There wasn’t a pear tree for miles, but a pair of gray partridge (not the two feathered birds pictured, figuratively thumbing their noses at me as they pecked at roadside gravel, but rather the un-feathered ones in the second photo) made a festive meal. I modified slightly a recipe I found in THE GAME COOKBOOK by Clarissa Dickson Wright and Johnny Scott: “Broiled Partridge with Garlic, Oil, Lemon and Cayenne.”) The book was given to me by Malcolm Brooks, a serious bird hunter and gifted novelist. You can check out his first book, Painted Horses, here. His second novel is called Cloudmaker, and it should be out later this year. They are both excellent tales of the New West (new = 1950’s.) Think Cormac McCarthy, only better.
Partridges (recipe calls for 4, I had only a brace), spatchcocked
Marinate the birds for 1-3 hours in 1/4 cup olive oil, juice of 1 lemon, 4 cloves mashed garlic.
Take them from the marinade, season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle them with cayenne. The recipe calls for them to be broiled for 15-20 minutes, but that depends of course on the method of broiling. I grilled them over a hot mesquite fire for about 12 minutes total, basting and turning them from time to time. DO NOT OVERCOOK. These little birds are precious, and you can’t buy them at Walmart.
I thought of that Mark Twain quote the other day when I came upon this long-abandoned schoolhouse while exploring for sharptails. With Edo curled up next to me I sat with my back against the cracked white paint of the schoolhouse wall, grateful for the weak winter sun, and sheltered from the gusting wind, while I enjoyed a lunch of Honeycrisp apple, Vermont cheddar and Park Avenue Bakery baguette, along with a few pieces of the jerky I made from last year’s moose. To the northeast I could see the Missouri River Breaks and, beyond that, the Bear’s Paw Mountains. To the south, a landscape of wheat stubble broken by brushy coulees ended in the foothills of the Highwood Mountains. Here and there, small stands of non-native trees marked a farmstead (or, more often, an abandoned homestead.) I thought of what this landscape might have felt like in 1918, the height of the homestead boom in this part of Montana, and what life might have been like for a farm kid in this school. Would he or she have been diligent about the Three Rs, or distracted by the wide open landscape? Would he or she have seen a life full of unfettered possibilities, or felt resigned to a life of drudgery? Even if the families of those kids of a century ago gave up the harsh life of dryland wheat farming and moved to cities and towns (as the majority of them eventually did), I would like to think that all took with them the lessons learned in this harsh, wide open country, where a person feels small and powerless one moment, indescribably exhilarated the next.
It was a year ago today that I had to put Louie down. He was 15 and a half years old. He was a delightful little dog who marched to the beat of his own drummer. Like most French Brittanys, he was both a couch potato par excellence, and an absolutely relentless hunter. The photo of him with the pheasant was taken two days before he died. We should all be so lucky.
I sneaked up on this scene along the Rocky Mountain Front, west of Augusta. It’s not clear how the mule deer doe met her demise.
While looking for sharptails today I ran across this De Soto “Fluid Drive.” A 1939 ad depicts a gleaming red Fluid Drive by the ocean, and reads: “Wherever you go…the smartest thing on the landscape is your own, low-slung De Soto! A ‘Tailored Car’ in every sense of the word! Come, step into this 105-horsepower Beauty! Why Dream it? Drive it!”
I have no idea how the car ended up in that coulee, but I know some folks who have a farm about five miles down the road – maybe they can enlighten me. Then again, maybe they can’t. The Montana landscape is littered with traces of forgotten lives. By the time this car was built the homestead era was long gone, and most of the would-be farmers had given up their dreams and made their way to more forgiving climates.
I’ve seen countless coyotes when bird hunting. Even though, at 35 pounds, my French Brittany is small enough to be killed by a coyote, he’s never shown the slightest concern about them, and the ones we encounter have always loped or sprinted away. Until today. We were looking for sharptail grouse in rolling prairie, with a strong wind whipping down from the Rocky Mountain Front, and Edo was quartering through tall grass about 80 yards ahead of me. All of a sudden a big coyote came into my field of view, 30 yards from Edo and racing toward him at full speed. Though the animal was out of shotgun range I shot towards it (with an H. Holland sidelever 16 bore) and it slowed. I fired again and it stopped, then turned and loped off about 100 yards, from where it continued to monitor us. At the shots, Edo, thinking I’d killed a bird, came running back. Strangely, he neither saw nor got wind of the coyote. For the next 20 minutes or so, the animal watched us as we hunted, alternately walking and trotting, sometimes lying in the grass, always remaining out of gun range, but clearly frustrated at missing a chance for a meal and ready to dart in again if the chance presented itself. When I finally lost sight of the coyote I became nervous, thinking it might be lying in ambush somewhere. I called Edo to me, and we headed back to the car, the dog annoyed at our truncated hunt, me glancing nervously over my shoulder.